The Zeigarnik Effect

Do you find yourself plagued by thoughts of unfinished work and tasks? Like when you get interrupted halfway through watching a t.v episode or a piece of work and it keeps circling your thoughts afterwards?

There is a reason why it’s so difficult to stop thinking about uncompleted and interrupted tasks. Psychologists refer to it as the Zeigarnik effect, which basically means we are better able remember unfinished tasks than completed ones.  

In a series of experiments, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, asked participants to complete a variety of simple tasks. Half of the participants were interrupted part way through, the others were given the time they needed to reach completion. She discovered that those who had their work interrupted were twice as likely to remember specifics about what they had been doing than those who had actually completed the tasks. 

In short, it’s in our nature to want to finish what we start. If we leave things unfinished, we will continue to be harassed by thoughts of it until we do.

So how exactly can we use this to our advantage?

The Zeigarnik can actually be used as a procrastination hack. Rather than leaving tasks to the last minute, start by taking just the first step, no matter how insignificant and small it seems. In doing so you open the loop. Once you have started —but not finished—your work, you will find your thoughts keep returning to the tasks until it is completed.

Want to write a book – start the first paragraph. Got a presentation you’re putting off, create the first slide. Want to mow your lawn, start with a small section. Then let your brain do the rest!